I have had some experience talking to my three year old, Otto, about death. I often share walks through the cemetery with them and talk openly about death and what might follow. I could tell that Otto was curious about the concept of death but didn’t really know how to ask questions to understand it better.

I figured there would be plenty of time before they needed to understand. That is until my partner Fleetwood died in late December of last year.

Talking to Toddlers and Young Children About Death 

toddlers talking death and dying

I learned of the death of my boyfriend the day I had dropped Otto off with my co-parent. I was grateful to have a few days to process this death on my own before I needed to share the news with them. When they returned to my house a few days later, I took the morning slow. I made some coffee, made them their hot chocolate, we ate a big breakfast together and I turned on their favorite show. When we were starting to feel regulated with one another, I decided to tell them.

“I wanted to tell you that Woody died.” I said.

“Woody died?” they asked, not really knowing what I was saying. “Where’d that guy go?” they asked, looking at the door to the guest room where Woody had slept just a few days before.

I tried to explain it to them the best I could – Woody had died, he wasn’t going to be able to come back, and that he was in the sky and the trees and all around us. Otto is a logical thinker, and ran to look out the window at the trees. “Woody over there?” They asked.

“Maybe,” I said. I didn’t know what I was doing. We turned our attention back to the TV and I held them until they uncharacteristically fell asleep in my arms. Let me be clear, my child does not fall asleep easily. They have been refusing naps for the past few months and bed time is always a struggle. The day I told them about their friend dying, they had to shut down for a while. So that’s what I let them do.

 I asked if… they wanted to cry right now, and they said yes, and we cried together for the first time. 

Later that day when they woke up and ate their lunch, they asked me if they could see pictures of Woody on my phone. We looked through them, many of them together laughing and smiling. Then they asked if they could see a picture of themself crying. I asked if they wanted to see that because they wanted to cry right now, and they said yes, and we cried together for the first time.

Be Honest and Direct 

talking death to toddlers

Going into this situation, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to be honest and direct about what had happened, to say it in the most matter-of-fact way possible. I hoped this would allow them to better understand and to normalize death – something they will inevitably experience again.

Because toddlers are still developing their language skills and understanding of words and concepts, leaving things vague and mysterious can cause frustration and misunderstanding. The Child Mind Institute states that when talking to a toddler, “repetition, consistency and clarity are especially important in situations where there’s no room for misunderstanding.”

For example, phrases like “passed away” or “is no longer with us,” are indirect and can create confusion. Stating clearly that someone has died will still require processing and further discussion, but it is less likely that it will be confused with something else.

 I explained the circumstance to our toddler in a very direct way without leaving any room for confusion or false hope… 

Fleetwood had a godson just a few months older than Otto, and his parents went about telling him in a similar way. They had experience talking to him about his grandmother, who died before he was born, but talking about Fleetwood, who he referred to as his uncle, was a different experience. “I was not prepared for the sudden death of someone so integral to our family and monumental in our toddlers life.” said his parent, Maz. “My partner and I explained the circumstance to our toddler in a very direct way without leaving any room for confusion or false hope that Fleetwood would come back again. I believe this is the most humane thing to do.”

Use Play as a Tool 

toddlers play death and dying

Both toddlers were interested in how Fleetwood died, and we went through the motions of showing our toddlers how the cars collided using toy cars as a demonstration. They wanted to play it out too, to wrap their minds around it. “He loves playing with cars and seemed upset by a potential betrayal.” Maz told me. “After it was explained [that Fleetwood’s death] was accidental, he was relieved and never showed any anger towards the driver or the car.  Instead, he focused on mentally tallying up everyone in his life so he could ask if they were killed too. This type of mapping out of everyone he knows has been going on for weeks.”

A week after the car accident, we went to a river to scatter Fleetwood’s remains. Our toddlers shook the canister over the river and watched the dust float away. They wanted to understand how Fleetwood was in a little container, they wanted to shake more remains out together. I explained cremation to Otto as age appropriately as I could. Afterwards, they wanted to tell everyone (including our doctor) that Woody’s body was put in the fire because of the car crash. They were also happy to hear that fire trucks were likely the first to arrive at the scene of the car accident.

Name Their Feelings 

Otto turned three a week after Fleetwood’s death, and is still very much in the beginning stages of understanding their own emotions and naming their feelings. Rarely are they able to tell me that they are feeling sad or scared, instead they respond to the emotions in their body using their body. Whether they cry, scream, fight with me, throw things, kick the dog, etc., that is their body responding to an emotion they don’t know how to name yet. Through this process of learning grief together, they have started to recognize their own emotions and when they need either space or comfort from their family.

 Naming their feelings starts with naming my own 

“During the day, my toddler will cry for a moment and then get distracted by something and go back to playing.” says Maz. “The grief is raw and unrestrained and he makes a point of telling anyone who crosses his path that uncle Fleetwood died.  Up until recently, he was waking up at night crying about not getting to play with and missing uncle Fleetwood.”

Occasionally I find myself stifling my own grief when I’m around Otto, not wanting to show them my sadness. Naming their feelings starts with naming my own however, and when I start to become irritable and angry I realize that what I need to do is cry. Crying in front of them has been unexpected, they ask me if I’m sad and I say yes. They bring me water and share the fruit snacks with me and just sit close, every once in a while asking “happy now?” To which I typically reply, “I’m happy because I’m with you, but I’m also sad because I miss Woody.”

Celebrate Your Loved One Together 

talking to toddlers about death

Memorialization has been important for both Otto and I to process the death of someone we loved. We live on a farm, and were able to have a small celebration of his life with our sober community on what would have been Fleetwood’s one year of sobriety. Another member of this community built a shrine for everyone to bring something to in remembrance – a beautiful piece of art that lives with us now. Otto and I walked into the shrine together for the first time, and they brought a dinosaur that was gifted to them by Fleetwood on their birthday – a gift he had already gift wrapped despite dying eight days before their birthday.

The day I told them, I introduced them to a new stuffed penguin. Otto wanted to name the penguin Woody, and they’ve slept beside it every night since. Another friend brought us framed pictures of Otto and Woody together, and I’ll catch Otto staring at the photo, still processing.

There are so many ways to memorialize your loved ones, and it’s possible your toddler will have ideas of their own. “Many folks overlooked and wrongfully assumed he wouldn’t grieve or notice Fleetwood was no longer around” says Maz. While they are feeling pressure from society to cut short their toddler’s need for love and attention right now, they know that he deserves as much time to grieve as any of us do.

Often, I think that toddlers are the easiest people to talk to about Fleetwood’s death. If they want to talk about it, they will talk about it. While we both experience a myriad of emotions throughout the day in our grief, they have an easier time expressing it, reminding me that I can express it too. That grief is always valid and deserving of our care and attention.

Books for Toddlers and Young Children About Death 

Sage Agee
Sage Agee [he/they] is TalkDeath’s Social Media Manager and Staff Writer. He is a certified Death Doula and runs a small-scale trans community farm called Phototaxis Farming Project. His writing focuses on death positivity, gender identity, sexuality, and parenting. He has written for The Washington Post, Insider, Parents Magazine, and more. Most of the time he is covered in dirt and looking for cool bugs.


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